Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” of deep shale deposits has yielded huge amounts of natural gas and crude oil over the last eight to nine years. The process, which uses enormous amounts of fresh water and proprietary chemicals, has been developed largely in the United States (US). In 2005 hydraulic fracturing was exempted by the US Congress from seven federal statutes, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, the so-called “Haliburton Loophole.” Without these exemptions the process may not have been financially viable. The oil and gas industry have kept many aspects of the process secret through claims of proprietary information and by silencing disputing landowners with payouts and non-disclosure agreements. State governments are struggling to catch up with adequate regulatory frameworks.
Shale that contains trapped natural gas and oil typically lies at 5,000 to 10,000 feet below ground. There are huge deposits in North America, most notably in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York State. The latter two states are over the Marcellus and Utica shales, that extend beneath Lake Erie into southwestern Ontario. There are shale deposits in the Sarnia area and near the greater Toronto area which extend northwest towards Georgian Bay.
A small band of shale deposits are also present south of the Ottawa River, east of Ottawa. Ontario shales lie closer to the surface than US shale in two regimes, zero to 600 feet and at about 3000 feet. Water bearing strata are typically within 300 feet of the surface. Western Canada and the Maritimes also hold large potential reserves of shale-based natural gas and oil. In Quebec, between Montreal and Quebec City, on both sides of the St. Lawrence River, there is a huge deposit of natural gas bearing shale.
Fracking begins with drilling through the upper water bearing layers and cementing in a casing which is supposed to prevent contamination of drinking water by fracking fluids or gas. Recovery of shale gas employs a newly developed drilling technique wherein the drill bit is
gradually turned to the horizontal to exploit the shale deposits. Multiple horizontal wells, typically eight to 12, can be created at one surface location. In order to start the gas flow the shale is fractured using perforation techniques, sometime with shaped explosive charges; this initiates the fractures in the shale. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals are then pumped under very high pressure into the fractured area to extend the fracturing and stimulate the flow of natural gas.
The sand or “proppant” holds the small fissures open to facilitate the gas flow. Some of the frack water flows back to the surface and is collected in tanks or pits and the initial flow of gas is vented or flared until the flowback has ceased. Then the well is put into the producing phase and the gas is collected and pipelined to market. The shale deposits yield saltwater along with the gas, the so-called “produced water.”
The risks to the air and water environment from the fracking process are staggering.
Water Typically, five million gallons of water, mixed with fracking chemicals and sand are required per
well per frack. Fifty to 90 per cent of this contaminated water is lost during fracking – left behind in the strata. Not only is this water contaminated with toxic chemicals but it has been removed permanently from the water cycle. The contaminated water may, depending on local geology, migrate upwards to contaminate drinking water.
The flowback water that does make it to the surface is often stored in open lined pits or tanks that can leak into the water bearing formations below. The flowback water and the produced water are often disposed of by injection into deep waste disposal wells or processed in local sewage treatment plants ill equipped to handle waste water from fracking.
Fracking chemicals Fracking products contain: acids, bactericides, corrosion inhibitors, friction reducers, gelling agents, iron controllers, scale inhibitors and surfactants. The US House of Representatives surveyed 14 fracking companies and found the most common constituents in fracking chemical mixtures, apart from sand, were (in order of frequency of use) methanol, isopropanol, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), hydro treated light
petroleum distillates and sodium hydroxide (caustic soda). Methanol, the most common fracking chemical, is considered a cumulative poison with chronic exposure. Other chemicals in use are diesel, napththalene, xylene, hydrogen chloride, toluene, ethyl benzene and benzene which is a known human carcinogen.
The oil and gas service companies surveyed used hydraulic fracturing products containing 29 chemicals that are (1) known or possible human carcinogens, (2) regulated under the (US) Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health, or (3) listed as hazardous air pollutants under the (US) Clean Air Act. These 29 chemicals were components of 652 different products used in hydraulic fracturing.
Radioactivity in produced water The produced waters or brines, far saltier than seawater, often contain radioactive elements such as strontium and radium. A 2011 United States Geological Survey study found radioactivity in shale wastewater in Pennsylvania 350 times the drinking water standard set by the (US) Environmental Protection Agency. Most disposal wells and treatment plants are not equipped to deal
with radioactive waste.
Methane leaks Ideally the recovered methane is all collected and piped away to market. Unfortunately there is evidence that the methane can migrate up through the strata to the water bearing layers or along the well casing when the well has not been properly cemented. Methane, an asphixiant, entering the ground water becomes an explosive hazard to those consuming the water and the well operators.
Wells have been known to blow out. Homeowners have been able to light a flame at their household taps. Methane reaching the atmosphere has a global warming potential 72 times that of carbon dioxide.
Local air pollution In addition to methane entering the air near drill sites, elevated levels of disulfides, benzene, xylenes and naphthalenes have been detected in air samples. People living near shale gas drilling sites often complain of headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds, dizziness, blackouts, muscle spasms, and other problems. At the drill pad the concentration of diesel powered pumps and trucks has contributed to high nitrogen oxide (NOx) concentrations which promote the formation of poisonous
ozone. This leads to photochemical smog. Even very low concentrations of ozone can cause permanent damage to the upper respiratory tract and the lungs.
Truck traffic The impact on a community near a fracking operation is considerable. One drill pad with 12 wells that are each fracked three times will require 180,000,000 gallons of fresh water in 36,000 tanker truck loads. There will also be a similar number of truck loads of flowback water and produced water to be removed for disposal and there will be a large number of truck loads for the chemicals, the sand and the drilling equipment. The huge spike in traffic takes its toll on local roads (repaired at taxpayer expense) and creates massive disturbances in quiet rural communities. Temporary workers flood the area looking for fast cash; traffic accidents increase, crime increases; drug use increases; local services, both municipal and private are strained. Fracking changes everything.
Property values One effect of fracking that is often forgotten is the drop in property values. Banks become reluctant to loan money to build homes in a fracking area, particularly
if the water has been contaminated. One Colorado resident indicated that his property value dropped from $559,000 to $280,000 after a fracking operation was set up adjacent to his property.
Cleaner than coal myth The argument that fracked natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal has recently been disproved by a Cornell University study. Largely because of the leakage of fracked methane during production and transport, the energy consumed in its production and the predominant use of methane as a domestic and industrial heating fuel, the green house gas contribution of fracked gas exceeds that of coal.
Gasland documentary Josh Fox is a landowner in northeastern Pennsylvania. Before allowing fracking companies access to his land he investigated several rural communities in the USA that have ongoing fracking operations and made a film entitled Gasland documenting what he learned. You will find the film shocking. You can rent the DVD or purchase it at amazon.com.
Ontario regulations The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), Gord Miller, recommended in his 2010/11 annual report entitled Engaging Solutions that Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and Ministry of Environment (MOE) review and publicly report on the sufficiency of the regulatory framework to protect water resources and the natural environment from shale gas extraction. In October 2012 an application was made to the ECO by Ecojustice to review three specific environmental regulations with respect to their applicability to the new technique of hydraulic fracturing. The MNR and MOE have agreed to conduct both reviews but no date for completion of these reviews is available.
One can only hope that the MNR and MOE and the Ontario government in general realize that the risks of fracking far outweigh the benefits from this method of extracting natural gas. Surely we can drive our energy future in a more promising direction. Once the ground water is contaminated with fracking chemicals it is lost forever. Moratoriums and bans are being called for all across Canada (particularly in Quebec) and the United States now that the risks are becoming known. Please call upon your MPP and your local municipality and urge them to ban fracking in Ontario.